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I'm currently writing a story with a strong theme of spirituality and divinity. At around the halfway point my protagonist has a religious experience which changes them. This experience is a highly important and pivotal to the make-up of the story.

The story is from the first-person perspective of the protagonist in question.

How would you write a life changing and pivotal religious experience?

Also, any examples of religious experiences in fiction would be a great help.

  • A suggestion that came to mind for me is: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. – Bea Bonmot May 13 '16 at 23:49
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    I think the question ("How would you write a life changing and pivotal religious experience?") is excessively generic. There isn't one (or even twenty) "right" answers to this. It depends on so many things, such as 1) what genre it is; 2) what is the motivation behind the protagonist's actions; 3) what is the outcomes you want to achieve; 4)to what extent are your personal beliefs influencing the story (and is that important); 5) do you want to approach this from a i) psychological, ii) sociological, iii) (cross-)cultural, iv) metaphysical perspective? There are too many variables. – user16555 May 15 '16 at 9:15
  • it would be best if you placed the life changing experience in the climax. that follows the normal "hero's journey" novel structure. – Reed May 15 '16 at 22:02
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I'd write about a religious experience the same way I write about any experience. Something tangible happens, which the character witnesses, and his own behaviors change in some way.

Check out A Prayer for Owen Meany, which begins like this: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

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Hmm, the question is too broad to give a definitive answer. How would you describe any experience? It depends on the nature of the experience, the nature of the character, and the role of the experience in the story.

If the experience was fundamentally emotional, like a character is sinking into despair at the mess he has made of his life and suddenly decides that his only option is to turn to God for help, than I'd describe it in emotional terms. I'd have the character describe his feelings -- either in narration or in conversation with another character. If you can write emotions effectively, you could talk about his despair and sobbing and calling out to God in desperation. (Or "to the gods" or whatever. You didn't say what religion you're talking about.)

If the experience was intellectual, if the character has spent years carefully studying objective evidence and has now come to the conclusion that the weight of scientific and/or historical and/or philosophical evidence favors this religion, then I'd talk about how hard he has studied and all the evidence he has reviewed and how he has carefully considered arguments and counter-arguments.

In either case, you should consider whether you want to express approval of the character's new beliefs, disapproval, or if you want to avoid expressing any value judgement. Do you describe his experience in ways that make him sound like a reasonable, intelligent person who has come to a rational conclusion, like a raving lunatic who has gone off the deep end, or do you want to frame it in a way that leaves the reader to judge?

As with any scene in any story, you have to consider how readers will react.

A strong emotional scene can make a story powerful and appealing. Some of the best loved stories are those with powerful emotional scenes. But overdo it and readers can be turned off. I've read plenty of stories where overdone emotional scenes leave me saying, "Yeah yeah, I get it, she's sad. Why can't you just tell me she's sad and move on?" If I had a formula for how to do this right, I suppose I'd be a world-famous writer and not the dabbler that I am. :-)

Religion can be particularly touchy. If you attack a religion, you can expect people who follow that religion to be uninterested in reading your book. Why would I want to read a book that attacks me? A few such books manage to get a reputation for being controversial and important and so even opponents read them so they can give a rebuttal, but that's hard to pull off. Usually if you insult people, they just ignore you.

If you endorse or praise a religion, people who dislike that religion may similarly respond negatively. This tends to be less dramatic. I'm a Protestant, but I tend to have a favorable view of books or movies that praise other branches of Christianity, as long as they're not attacking Protestantism. I'm pretty neutral on religions that are largely dead. Like I read Greek myths without worrying that they are advocating paganism, because that's just not much of an issue today. But atheists tend to react negatively to stories that praise Christianity, and Christians tend to react negatively to stories that praise atheism.

  • Jay, he asked about how to describe a spiritual experience, not about a particular religion. – Reed May 17 '16 at 21:23
  • @Reed Umm, I'm not clear what your point is. I used Christianity as an example in my last paragraph, not assuming he was talking about Christianity. Presumably a "religious experience" would be about SOME religion. I suppose one could try to be vague and not specify what religion it was. I'd think that would be hard, and if, as the OP says, this is a major element in the story, difficult to see how you could do that without it being obvious to the reader that you're beating around the bush. – Jay May 18 '16 at 1:48
  • @Reed - I actually think Jay's made a few valid points, and hasn't actually gone into extolling any particular religion over another. The point about perception is vital too, consideration has to be given to who your readers are, and Religious views are often rather dicey and can quickly be seen as 'attacking' when that may never have been the intention at all, particularly when dealing with 'real world' religions and themes...one of the reasons I prefer Fantasy, there's less potential for reader conflict with fictional religions – user18397 May 18 '16 at 3:42
  • @thomo A classic observation about science fiction and fantasy is that by setting your story in an imaginary place, you can make comments about religion or politics or social issues that are just distant enough that people don't react emotionally, while close enough to make your point. – Jay May 18 '16 at 14:26
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Simply and directly is usually the best way to write about religious experience. And focusing on the emotions. There are some classics on religious experience in real life (not fictional accounts) such as "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramahansa Yogananda and "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James. More contemporary accounts: "The Experience of No-Self" by Bernadette Rogers and "A Christian Woman's Secret" by Lilian Staveley.

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It is easy to imagine that moments of religious experience are great strum and drang affairs, but they are more often moments of quietness. Not the storm but the calm after the storm. Consider 1 Kings 19:11-13:

11So He said, "Go forth and stand on the mountain before the LORD." And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

They are moments when one feels a great clarity or certainty. They are not the noise but the thing that cuts through the noise. They are the coda, not the crescendo. This may not be universal (sometimes, like Paul, you get knocked off your horse) but I believe it is very much the norm.

The religious experience is above all a moment of recognition. "Then the two told what had happened on the road, and how they had recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread." (Luke 24:35) C.S. Lewis describes his conversion something like this "I broke down and confessed that God was God, the most reluctant convert in all Christendom." Just because you have the moment of recognition does not mean you are happy about it. But it is still a moment of recognition. And of course, recognition can be a profoundly life changing event.

To describe a moment of recognition, I think, is more a matter of preparation than anything else. Consider a scene in which a man sees a stranger approaching him on the street and then suddenly recognizes that it is his father. The impact of that moment of recognition depends not on how you tell the meeting itself but on whether they have been separated for a long time or dad just went down to the shop for a bag of chips. It depends on it there is some grievance between them, or if he has special need of his father, or if his father is missing. What the reader knows about these things will determine how they react to the moment of recognition. The impact is all in how it is set up, not how it is described.

If you set up the moment of religious recognition so that the reader appreciates the gravity of it (whether they share it or not) they will feel its impact on the protagonist.

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